Maggie and The Professorbylazyways©
Being awarded a senior faculty fellowship was the culmination of three long hard years of work, and David couldn't remember the last time he had felt this kind of professional validation. Such satisfaction.
And the paid sabbatical would be a welcome respite from teaching. He hoped to use that time to finish the text that he'd begun to work on years ago, just bits and pieces collected here and there. He'd use that text to instruct an undergraduate class in the new course he would be adding to the university's curriculum. He wondered over all these details as he walked and studied the sky, which was a soft aquarium blue in the afternoon. The details that were so mundane yet promised so much.
He had known for a few days but chose to keep the news to himself. He wanted to let it sink in, and he liked the solitary pleasure of a secret. But it was becoming impossible not to share.
David sauntered toward the familiar house. There was no mistaking the most conspicuous house on the block, the only house painted a blue so bright it was nearly neon. But the garage was wide open, and Deborah Abbot's hot pink Chevy was noticeably absent along with Chase Abbot's only slightly more subdued gold sedan.
David cautiously made his way up the driveway, taking care to stay aware of his surroundings. It was unlike the couple to be so careless. When David arrived at the door, this was also open. He gave it a light push, slipped in, and grimaced when the hinges creaked as he closed it behind him. His mind was on burglars at this point, and he wanted to attract as little attention as possible.
It didn't take long for David to discover the culprit. An unfamiliar figure, a long and lean feminine shape, stood silhouetted in the kitchen. She seemed to be helping herself to whatever food was in the fridge.
"Hi there," David announced.
The woman shrieked as she turned and reached for the object closest to her, which was, to her obvious chagrin, a colander. She stared at it helplessly for a moment, and then looked back at David, mouth agape.
"Who are you?" she asked breathlessly. The intruder peered at him and, for a moment, David was taken aback by striking features: golden hair gathered up in a high bun, dewy skin, eyes the color of sea glass gone dark with age. The woman was in her early twenties, and, despite the huge men's shirt she wore, she was observably tall and slim with slender limbs and a gracefully long neck. David caught himself and cleared his throat.
"I was just going to ask you the same thing. I'm a friend of the Abbots. What exactly are you up to?"
"I'm Maggie." She frowned. "I'm the house-sitter."
"House-sitter? Where are the Abbots?"
"They're away for the holidays. They won't be back for another few weeks. They didn't tell you?" Now David frowned. He dimly remembered having a conversation with Chase about this vacation, a trip to the British Virgin Islands to celebrate Christmas and their anniversary, but the details he recalled were vague.
"Jesus, I forgot all about it." David scratched his head, and Maggie grinned at him. He was embarrassed by his flub, to have a witness so pretty and young to this oversight. "Well, sorry to startle you, Maggie. I'm David Laughton. Maybe if you kept the garage door shut, you'd have fewer prowlers to contend with. I've heard there have been a few besides me. There've been a couple of burglaries in the neighborhood recently."
"I'm an idiot," she confessed. I noticed a few weeds in their garden and was looking for some tools in the garage. Then I guess I got distracted. Lunchtime," she explained with a shrug. She caught herself and clarified, "I'm usually much more on top of things, I promise."
"Don't worry, they won't hear it from me."
"Thanks." Maggie glanced at the sink and then looked back at David, who had been making a study of her quick, pretty movements. Like a hummingbird, he thought. "Um, are you hungry at all? I just threw together a few grilled cheese sandwiches."
"I could eat." David took his usual place at the kitchen table, and Maggie followed him with two little plates and set them down at their respective seats. The sandwiches smelled incredible, if not a little unusual, but he politely waited as she hurried around the kitchen, setting the table and bringing them both glasses of water.
When she was settled, David took his first bite.
"Whoa. What is this?"
"Bosc pears with honey and ricotta. Is it okay? It was an experiment. And a distraction. It gets pretty dull around here."
"It's wonderful, actually. It just took me off guard. I was expecting a couple of American cheese slices." Especially from a woman who, at least at first glance, seemed a little spacey, he thought to himself.
"Well, thanks. I'm pretty pleased with the results." Maggie took her next bite and chewed thoughtfully as she sized him up. "So how do you know the Abbots?"
"Chase is a colleague of mine."
"So you're a professor, too?" David nodded. "You look more like a marine," she laughed. Prompted by his puzzled look, she explained. "Sorry. It's a compliment. I just mean there's something kind of alpha about you. But wholesome, too. You're a little more muscular than most professors I've met." She remembered many of her male professors being asexual or even effeminate, Chase Abbot included. None of them had looked like this -- weathered but attractive and almost a little squinty, like a Clint Eastwood or a John Wayne.
"Well, thank you," he nodded. David could feel the heat in his face and tried to will it away. He also felt the sudden awareness of her youth and considered the probability that, at forty-five, he was about twice her age. As soon as he found himself contemplating whether or not her father was older or younger than him, he deflated.
"So what do you teach?"
"Hey, I got my degree in anthropology. What's your focus?"
"Cultural anthropology, mostly, but I teach a section of biological anthropology. What about you? Or maybe a better question might be, what are you doing with your degree?"
"If I'm being honest...letting it gather dust. The job market for scholars is bleak, to say the least. I've just been picking up odd jobs like this," she indicated the house with her thumb, "since I graduated a couple years back, barely scraping by." David nodded and considered. An idea was germinating, and, without thinking it through or letting it develop, plunged ahead.
"You know, I came by to tell the Abbots about a research project I've just been granted a fellowship for. I need an assistant, and it's always a pain to find one during an intersession. It'd only be a few weeks. But still, it'd be a cinch, with you staying so close. And this house isn't exactly high maintenance. You'd have plenty of time, and you'd be making a little extra cash."
"I'd be an idiot to say no to that. What would you need? An interview? My CV?"
"Well, why don't I come by tomorrow? I'll take you back to my home office, and we can talk it over."
And that's how it had happened. Within half an hour of meeting Maggie, he had done whatever he could to ensnare her, without even thinking. David strolled home, baffled at what his end game might be. He hadn't dated anyone since his divorce, and he had never found himself this drawn to anyone, let alone someone so much younger. And if he was interested in this woman, hiring her as a research assistant couldn't have been his best move.
He had to remind himself that he knew nothing about this woman. And the job was only temporary. It would give him an excuse to get to know her, and, at his age, he had the patience to wait for the assistantship to end before he made any decisions about whether to take their relationship somewhere less professional.
But, as long as it had been, his memory of women was still alive in his senses. And, despite his misgivings, he found himself powerless to stop this part of his mind from running wild with fantasies about Maggie. He took the name, fresh in his mind, and turned it over like a stone in his palm, warming it, welcoming it. His breath caught as his thoughts wandered into more graphic places, the warm velvet of skin, a searing image of what she might look like under all those big clothes. Maggie, he considered again, and sighed.
Once David had left, Maggie had sat down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee to reflect. The man was unusual, she thought as she sipped her cold coffee and grimaced. She was surprised that someone so clean cut and masculine was a professor and not law enforcement. He was attractive in a way that had never interested her before. He was an all-American dark blonde, almost forgettable, if it weren't for the way he carried himself: quiet but proud and strong. And kind.
Her fiancé was nothing like David. Exotic, beautiful, and boisterous, Rafael was just the kind of man she had envisioned herself ending up with since she was twelve years old, when she had first started looking at boys in a different way. She had dated a lot in high school and college, but Rafael was her first real long-term relationship, the only one that had lasted beyond a year.
She liked the security that she felt in her relationship with Rafael, how handsome he was, that his sociability complemented her introversion. Everyone liked him. And that was the word that echoed in her head as she thought of him, even if she wasn't ready to acknowledge it. "Like."
Maggie had not expected to be picked up by David in a car, especially when he'd mentioned that he only lived a couple blocks away from the Abbots. The "car" itself was even more of a surprise, a dusty black Jeep Wrangler. She was out of the house before he had a chance to step out of the truck.
"Hey there," she called out over the rumble of the engine. "Another surprise."
"How do you mean?"
"A professor who looks like an army man and drives an army truck. Very interesting."
"Hop in," David ordered, grinning unabashedly. He reached across the seat and threw the passenger door open for her. She stopped short as he began to sweep old dry leaves from the cracked leather. "Sorry," he said, noting her expression, which was a little bit amused and a little bit confused. He grinned again and gestured to the seat as an invitation.
David seemed quiet to her at first, but she soon found that any attempts at conversation were foiled by the sound of the Jeep. They sat in a brief, comfortable silence, with only the white noise of the engine and the road to accompany them.
After they arrived, David led Maggie into the house. She noted, without surprise, that his house's interior was minimalist. The furniture was sparse. What décor she could see, though, was warm and homey. It smelled like strong black tea and mint and smoke. He led her to his kitchen table, which he had prepared, however untidily, in advance. Books and paper and pens were strewn everywhere, with a lone laptop in the middle of the mess.
"Your home office?"
"Well, I do have one, a proper one," he responded sheepishly. "But most of the work ends up happening out here. You're welcome to use the real office in the future if you get tired of me."
"Nice filing system you have here," she laughed.
"It probably doesn't look very organized to you but trust me, there's a system."
"If you say so," she teased. David gestured toward a chair and sat beside her.
"Want anything to drink?"
"No thanks." David found a bottle of water under the sink and opened it as he sat down in the chair next to her.
"So," he began, taking a sip from the bottle, "I realized after I left you that I didn't give you a clue what this research project is about. It's been a pet project of mine for a few years. Anthropologists have always studied and written about marriage across cultures but romantic love, particularly love as a motivation for marriage, is relatively rare. Love is a luxury in most societies, so that's sort of the thing. In some societies, it's pitiable, even derided. I haven't been able to refine my focus yet but maybe I'll finally commit once we start sorting through some of this." David stopped short before using the word 'mess,' which he acknowledged it was, at least to himself. "I'm thinking I might not even narrow the topic down. A cross-section from a few different cultures might be interesting. A chapter dedicated to each. I'm wide open."
"Well, I'm into it. I'd never really thought about it before but, you know, you're right. I don't ever remember any discussion of love in my classes. Just family, companionship, marriage as social contract, that kind of thing." Maggie paused, sensing something deeper at work, but she opted to keep quiet for now. "I'd never really questioned it, I guess."
"Maybe the best way to ease you into this is to let you read some of my notes, the fragments I've written so far. And maybe you can look at some of the texts I have scattered around. I'm getting a little ahead of myself, though. I don't expect us to start tonight, just wanted to get the ball rolling. You can take some of these materials home with you, though, if you'd feel more comfortable." David stopped, realizing full well that he had been rambling. It was time to let Maggie absorb the things that he'd said.
"Yeah, I think your notes would be a good start. Would you mind if I took them home with me tonight? Or copies of them?"
"Sure, I trust you to take the originals."
"Sounds good," she responded absently, her focus on a photocopied article that lay to the right of her arm about traditional Japanese marriages. David fidgeted, deciding it was time to segue into more casual conversation.
"So, Chase was your professor?"
"Actually," she admitted, "I never did take any of his classes."
"Oh? Then how did you meet? Was he your advisor?"
"Ah..." Maggie's cheeks went hot with embarrassment. This flush of color was not lost on David. "We dated. Briefly. I was meeting with another anthropology professor. She was late, his office was next door, and he struck up a conversation with me." Maggie stopped short and blushed anew. "Oh, and it was a long time ago, too. My freshman year. Before Mrs. Abbot. Right before her, actually."
"Mrs. Abbot is my ex-wife," David blurted. He felt the bite of jealousy and was just a little surprised to find that it wasn't the mention of 'Mrs. Abbot' that bothered him. Chase was 10 years his junior and had always excelled at flirtation, he reminded himself. Seduction, too, when the mood struck him. He had a softness about him that belied the animal beneath. Women adored him. He would have been more surprised to hear that Maggie and Chase had never been involved.
"Were you friends with Chase before that happened? Or did you bond over a shared interest?" Maggie regretted the joke as soon as she'd said it.
"I've known Chase for over thirty years. Since he was born. Our families were good friends."
"Jesus. Sorry. I've never understood that. It seems like, more often than not, that kind of thing doesn't bother men. How can they forgive their friends, resume these friendships even after they've been betrayed? How did you do it?"
"I'm not saying there weren't any problems. I didn't talk to him for a year. Refused to talk to either of them. But they're my neighbors, and I'd see them everywhere. I grew up with the guy," he shrugged.
"Do you still love her?"
"I thought I did. For a long time after she left me. But I think that it was some combination of attachment, jealousy, nostalgia. When I saw them for the first time after my divorce, I realized how perfect they were together, and that all of the old feelings were gone."
Maggie cocked her head. "There's nothing left? Even after a marriage?"
"There's tenderness. Affection. But there's no 'spark' any more. If there even was one to begin with. We were good companions but there was never any real connection. You know how it starts: they're attractive, you have a lot in common, you get along well enough, there's no reason it shouldn't work. But something's missing." Maggie nodded and looked knowing, sad. She thought of Rafael and felt a pang of guilt. "Chase and Deborah really love each other," David continued. "Who am I to get in the way of that?"
"So, I'm guessing the subject of your research project is no coincidence, then."
"I know. I'm not about to pretend my interest was exclusively academic. I started working on it after the divorce was finalized. Gave me a purpose. It was therapeutic, I guess."
"It's worked for you?"
"It was a good distraction. Helped me put things in perspective." He nervously shuffled the notes that he planned to give to Maggie. There was a little more to the story, but he would have to wait for a better time to tell her, a time when they'd gotten a little closer. "Anyway, now you know more than you'd ever want to about this research project. Still on board?"
She smiled and nodded. "Of course."
Two days later, Maggie was just finishing lunch when she heard the old doorbell, a strident, wheezing chime. She had expected the mailman but found David on the doorstep instead.
"Hey, sorry I didn't give you a heads up. I was on my way to the library to drop off some of these books and pick up a couple new ones," he explained. "I forgot I have a research assistant now. You free to come with?"
"Sure. Let me get my sweater." David nodded and waited. When she returned, she wore a navy cable-knit sweater and had wrapped a kerchief around her hair.
"Just being practical," she shrugged and pointed to his Jeep, its top missing.
"Sorry about that," he frowned as she followed him out. "It was warmer earlier."
"I don't mind." This time, David remembered himself and opened the door for her. She swung herself into the seat more gracefully than he'd expected, tucking her tan oxfords beneath her, and gave him a little half-smile as he shut her door.
The ride to the library was short and silent. David's mind strayed from their library trip to thoughts of Maggie. They were inescapable. Obsessive and compulsive. He wanted to prepare for what might happen between them. He had always been a planner, trying to determine the shape of his future. Though he knew better than anyone that the course of a relationship was unpredictable at best.
David also knew that there were at least a few weeks more before the possibility of real romance between them might come into play. Yet he still couldn't help but wonder how he would approach Maggie, how their relationship could evolve. He could take the direct route and explain his interest, though discussing his feelings had never been his strong suit. He could ask her on a date. He could seduce her, but the idea of being so bold seemed impossible to him.
David had always felt at at ease around the opposite sex. College ushered in this comfort, when he'd started to fill out his once-gangly frame, and when he'd first understood that women found him appealing. At what point, exactly, had he forgotten how to seduce a woman? When Deborah had left? But he couldn't have forgotten. There was something about this particular woman that made him nervous and that made him struggle not to forget himself around her. That made him feel, no matter what, he was somehow muddling through each conversation, every interaction between them.
It was hard for David to be around Maggie and not think exclusively about all the things he wanted to do to her. He realized that today was worse than the first somehow as he followed Maggie silently into the library. He was fascinated by the shape of her ass, small and round, the rhythm of her walk so perfect it could have been dictated by a metronome.
They wandered endlessly through the stacks, climbing the stairs higher and higher until it seemed to David that they were inside a skyscraper and not an old university library. His vertigo coupled with Maggie's hypnotic movements as she led him up to the building's top floor made him feel that he was falling headlong into something he would never return from.